Trinity Makutu doesn’t think of her childhood as a time of hardship.

“I don’t remember it being a struggle,” she says.

However, her mother has a different recollection.

Her mum recalls her kids missing school a lot when they lived in Hamilton, because they couldn’t afford the bus. She remembers the time they were evicted, forcing the family to move and find new accommodation. Makutu says she was oblivious to such things at the time, thanks to her mother protecting her from the realities of the day-to-day struggles.

“I was never overly bothered by not having much money,” reflects Makutu.

She is currently back home in Kaitaia for the Easter holidays with her seven younger siblings.

“It’s never quiet,” she laughs. “I love it. I hate leaving.”

But she’s also relishing her first semester of a conjoint law and arts degree at Waikato University. Clearly a humble person, she finds it more difficult to speak about her academic prowess, although this is self-evident.

“When I was younger I wasn’t as committed to my academic achievements, but as I got older and did NCEA, the motivation to finish high school grew stronger.”

Aware that opportunities were sparse in Kaitaia, she moved from the comfort zone of her small community and her kura kaupapa to live with her dad in Auckland and attend Manurewa High School for her final years of high school. Now at university, she’s keen to be a good role model for her siblings.

Makutu seems almost oblivious to the fact that she’s smashing stereotypes around poverty and achievement.

Socioeconomics and achievement

Research released earlier this year by the OECD has only served to perpetuate the discourse around the correlation between economic disadvantage and learning outcomes. It claims that New Zealand students from low-decile communities are less “academically resilient” than they were a decade ago.

The researchers define academically resilient students as those who are among the 25 per cent most socio-economically disadvantaged students in their country but are able to achieve above the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) baseline level in reading, maths and science.

PISA data collected between 2006 and 2015 revealed that many of the 51 countries in the study increased the proportion of resilient disadvantaged students over the course of the decade. However, the percentage of resilient disadvantaged students in New Zealand has declined significantly. Over 36 per cent of New Zealand’s most socio-economically disadvantaged students were considered academically resilient in 2006. By 2015, this percentage had dropped to 25 per cent.

Why can’t we get a handle on this problem?

Trinity Makutu is obviously among this 25 per cent. Yet the research tells us that the number of students like her is diminishing year on year.

It’s not a new problem.

Professor Dugald Scott says when he first started his teacher education, one of his lecturers talked about the “wide spread of achievement” that New Zealand schools faced.

“After 40 years in the service we’re still talking about it.”

“The concerning thing is that while socio-economic disadvantage is a handicap in any education system in the world, it is more of a handicap in New Zealand.”

“What this shows is that we’re not getting better,” he says, referring to the OECD research.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins agrees the OECD findings are concerning.

“It’s always alarming to see when New Zealand has been going backwards,” he says.

However, the Minister is positive about the path forward.

“There is a lot of good work being done in this area, and it is something this government is extremely focused on,” he says.

At a broad level, he points to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s commitment to halve the number of children in poverty within 10 years.

Professor Scott applauds the Government’s recent initiatives to address child poverty but says this won’t necessarily help improve the likelihood of these children succeeding at school.

While it might be possible to improve child poverty, if the education system those children are entering is not fit for purpose then we’re still not solving the problem, says Scott.

Former Manurewa High School principal Salvatore Gargiulo takes a similar view.

“While it would be possible to meet the targets of reducing how many families are below half the median income by giving them more many – I do feel the only real solution is to get the next generation into meaningful employment through educational achievement.”

But Hipkins says that addressing child poverty will, among other positive consequences, raise educational achievement.

“When you drill down to education, there are also several things that evidence already tells us can make a significant difference.

“At its heart, and this is something at the top of our agenda, is the need for quality teaching and strong leadership in schools.

“Quality teaching is the single-most important in-school factor in raising achievement. Getting students engaged in learning means they are much more likely to learn the skills and capabilities they need to live full and rewarding lives.”

Hipkins has already shown an eagerness to leverage teaching to a well-respected and attractive career.

“We are reducing unnecessary compliance and over assessment and, with the sector, are developing a workforce strategy to attract, recruit and retain a high quality education workforce.”

The importance of a positive school climate

The OECD research found that a positive school environment contributed to the success of disadvantaged students and there is no doubt a strong and satisfied teaching workforce is a factor here.

The research found that a principal’s transformational leadership style and low staff turnover contribute to a positive school climate.

It also found that disadvantaged students are more likely to be academically resilient in schools where students report a good disciplinary climate, compared to schools with more disruptive environments.

Helen Tuhoro, principal of Tarawera High School in Kawerau, says a positive school environment is essential for giving students a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

When Tarawera High School opened in 2013 it set out new rules and expectations for students. Tuhoro estimates that two out of every three students who started at the new school struggled to conform to the new rules and expectations of behaviour and had only learnt to do things in a negative and destructive way. They spent some time off site in an Alternative Pathways programme building positive self-esteem and self-worth, finding their strengths and passions.

“One of these boys last year gained NCEA level 1 with merit endorsed in music as we found he had a natural talent for playing the piano. He could so easily have dropped out and become a statistic.

“Having students feel good about themselves is vital; if they feel they are worthless, they won’t even try. Giving them the belief that they can succeed is even more important. For so long in their lives they have been told they are losers or nothing, so they live up to it. Many face issues with anger and we follow the mantra of ‘get curious not furious’.”

This is echoed by Dr Dennis Littky, US educator and author of The Big Picture who believes learning is about “the three Rs” – relationships, relevance, and rigour.

“The ability to believe in yourself and others and to love learning is not “soft”. I’d argue that it is a lot more difficult and complicated than learning to read or do math. But it is not easy to test…so it is ignored.”

What we’re teaching, and how we’re teaching it, matters

Helen Tuhoro believes the correlation between socioeconomic status and achievement has more to do with the authenticity of the learning than students’ backgrounds.

“When New Zealand data came out last year, Kawerau was ranked as one of the most deprived areas in the country yet we are managing to have some excellent achievement by our students, reaching not only the average of other similar deciles but those of the national average.

“Making the content of what they are learning authentic and real has given the students a purpose when looking at learning.”

For example, biology is now about raising trout in the river that backs the school’s grounds; English is about making a poster for the school production; chemistry is about changing pulp into paper at the local mill, and so on.

Former Manurewa High School student Sulani Helg agrees.

“Learning about things we could relate to was so important,” she says.

She recounts how for NCEA, students learned about the dawn raids, activists, their indigenous histories, and things happening around New Zealand that they could relate back to their lives and heritage.

The importance of the teacher-student relationship

Sulani Helg also says teachers have an important role to play in shaping students and how they see the world.

“There is a strong mentality of ‘if I have your support, you have my support’,” she says.

United States educationalist and researcher Dr Ruby K. Payne says we need to create relationships of mutual respect with students as “virtually all learning occurs within this relationship”.

In a 2009 paper she discusses what schools can do to increase achievement for under-resourced students. She recommends first understanding which resources students have and don’t have as a means for determining which interventions will work. Payne suggests teaching things like planning and time management to students, as it is “crucial for school success” and she encourages students to develop their unique future story.

Payne’s work also exposes the “hidden rules” that exist in different settings, such as at home compared to at school. Not knowing how to navigate the unspoken conventions of any given setting can prevent people from succeeding. Payne maintains that these hidden rules can prevent disadvantaged students from succeeding in the school setting. She says that by explicitly teaching these hidden rules, students increasingly will be able to function effectively in multiple settings.

Salvatore Gargiulo devoted his sabbatical in 2014 to better understanding how to improve the engagement and academic success of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. His research, which draws heavily on Payne’s work, makes the point that education is developed and implemented by middle class society. As such, a teacher is less likely to understand the perspective of a child from an impoverished background. Gargiulo suggests that teachers need to understand a student’s differing perspective, or “mental model”, in order to begin to address the impacts of socio-economic status on his or her learning.

“There is no doubt the culture of the school and the relationship between staff and students are crucial. Most teachers come from middle class, so need to know what mental model is being used by students from poverty,” he says.

It’s a fine line, however. Trinity Makutu offers a valuable insight. While she agrees trust and empathy are important, this shouldn’t spill over to too much involvement in students’ personal lives.

“Teachers shouldn’t confuse personalised learning with personal life,” she says.

Makutu says students can be nervous about teachers getting too close to their families and home lives and it can actually lead to further isolation from school.

We don’t know what we don’t know…

Professor Dugald Scott says part of the problem is that schools can’t identify exactly what they need to do to make a difference without knowing the correlation between a child’s socio-economic status and their academic performance.

The decile system, which is based on census mesh block data, is of little use here – and it is halfway out the door in any case.

The social investment approach initiated by the National Government could be seen as a step in the right direction to arming schools with this knowledge, however, obtaining any sort of correlation from the data is difficult due to the necessary privacy constraints that come with the funding.

So our schools generally do not have any way internally of discovering which of our systems or teaching techniques are the worst culprits in perpetuating that link between socio-economic status and educational achievement.
“Until our schools collect that kind of data at the student level and work out what is more and less effective at reducing the spread of achievement within schools, we are bound to point at big ticket items like child poverty, but possibly miss looking at entrenched local practices,” says Scott.

Minister Hipkins says the Education Ministry has recently been working on new ways to understand the levels of disadvantage in schools, and has developed an equity index using Government administrative data.

“Future decisions on how schools and early learning services can best be resourced and supported to mitigate the effects of disadvantage could be informed by tools such as this index.

“Having better ways of identifying schools and services that have a harder job due to the socio-economic situation of their children can help target professional development, design wrap-around services and help teachers and principals to meet their student’s needs.”

Scott says we could also look to the OECD for answers.
To identify the effect that each child’s socio economic status had on his or her educational achievement PISA administered a rudimentary survey that allowed an estimate of each 15-year-old participant’s relative background wealth. That data allowed PISA to estimate the strength of the link between socio economic status and achievement.

Scott suggests it would be logical to repeat the same kind of exercise in New Zealand schools and try to find out ways a school (and individual teachers) can reduce the strength of the link in the New Zealand context.

…but we ignore what we do

Professor Scott believes New Zealand governments over the years have taken a pick-and-choose approach to evidence.

“Despite evidence piling up, we choose to ignore it.”

He gives what he describes as “an obvious example” when it comes to teaching maths. Research shows that streaming doesn’t work yet we continue with it, despite our dismal performance in the TIMMS rankings.

On this subject Hipkins shows an openness to delve further.

“Regarding streaming, on average across the OECD, there is a statistical relationship between within-school streaming and lower academic performance. However, in New Zealand more than 90% of secondary schools stream students.

“It is a complex issue and one that I will be seeking more advice on, and I expect will form part of the wider debate we are having on education this year,” he says.

Should we even care what PISA says?

Or are we placing too much emphasis on PISA and TIMMS and other international comparative measures?

“I am not sure that PISA is a very accurate measure of New Zealand student performance,” says Salvatore Gargiulo. “I have been in a school when the students were selected and tested. The students were resentful that they should have to take the test, especially when it went through an interval break!”

Gargiulo believes NCEA data gives a better picture of academic performance in New Zealand. A student’s achievement of Level 2 can see them on a path to further education, demonstrating one of the strengths of NCEA – the opportunity that every student who enters secondary school can follow a pathway through to tertiary.

“I would argue that a big contributor to the reduction in the achievement gap are programs like the Trades Academies,” he says.

An Education Counts report shows a correlation between the socio-economic mix of the school and the percentage of school leavers with at least NCEA Level 2. In 2016, 92.9 per cent of students from schools in the highest deciles (deciles 9 and 10) left school with at least an NCEA Level 2 qualification. This was 25.4 percentage points higher than the percentage for school leavers in deciles 1 and 2 (67.5 per cent).

Although the gap is large, the authors of the report note that it is closing over time. They also note that there is a great deal of variation amongst schools within each decile, with some schools in the lowest deciles with a greater proportion of students achieving a level 2 qualification or above than some schools in the highest deciles.

New Zealand Qualification Authority’s most recent NCEA report also shows that the gap between low decile and high decile schools in terms of Level 2 attainment is lessening. In 2012, 73.1 per cent of Year 12 students in decile 1-3 schools attained Level 2, compared with 89.4 per cent in decile 8-10 schools – a gap of 16.3 per cent. By 2016, this rose to 84.5 per cent for low decile schools and 93.7 per cent for high decile schools – a gap of 9.2 per cent.

We need to widen the focus

Reports and statistics that single out particular groups infuriate Sulani Helg.

“Students want to be more than a number. They want to be valued and respected, especially if they do not get this from their home life.”

The former head girl of Manurewa High School has an aversion to stereotypes. She points out that there are countless cultures defying stereotypes but nothing is said about these efforts.

Like Trinity Makutu, she is doing just that. Now in her second year of a double-major Bachelor of Arts at Victoria University in Wellington, Helg is the first in her family to attend university.

Both her parents dropped out of school to help support their families. Through sheer determination and hard work, they have managed to provide a different sort of future for their children, supporting Helg with university fees and accommodation costs.

“I hardly saw my parents growing up as a result of them wanting to do well for their children,” says Helg. The countless sacrifices her parents made are what motivate her today.

Helen Tuhoro believes it’s important not to lose sight of the values associated with serving and caring for family and community.

Tuhoro says many of their students come from solo parent families, many without a father figure, and many are being raised by grandparents. As a result they are very whānau-orientated and are always there for younger siblings or to help Nan when she is ill.

“Whānau comes first and through this they learn the respect and value of not only life but caring and serving their community – our mission statement, and something missing in this next generation of New Zealanders.

“We are about building the whole person; academic, social, emotional and all round good well-being.”

With so much emphasis placed on improving academic achievement it is easy to forget that improved student outcomes can – and should – extend well beyond test results.  This view is echoed by many around the globe. Dr Dennis Littky says there is no one indicator of success that fits every kid.

“What scares me so much and makes me so angry is that in all this talk about standardised tests and consequences for “low-performing” schools, nobody is measuring whether schools are developing healthy human beings.”

The power of hope

Tuhoro says it is so important to give kids hope.

“When they come from the backgrounds of domestic violence and poverty, they often feel there is nothing out there for them, what’s the point and they can’t do things or they shouldn’t do things.

“Our job is to give them hope – they can do this, they can go to university, they can get a good job.”

“Many are third generation unemployed and as no-one gets up for work in the house, it is up to us to motivate them, give them dreams to aspire to and meet. Anything is possible.”

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk ‘A Single Story’ urges people not to cling to negative stereotypes. To insist only on negative stories is to flatten the whole experience, she says.

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it is that they are incomplete,” she says.

This is particularly pertinent to any discussion around socioeconomics and achievement, such as this one. Research tells us that New Zealand has a problem in this area. And while we shouldn’t ignore it, neither should we let statistics like this define us.

For every Trinity Makutu and Sulani Helg, there will be countless others like them, hiding outside of the statistics, quietly busting the stereotypes and creating their unique stories of success. Let us not be afraid to prioritise these stories above research that gives such a small and one-dimensional interpretation of success. We might even learn something from their experiences that can help light the way.

The OECD paper “Academic Resilience: What Schools and Countries Do to Help Disadvantaged Students Succeed in PISA” (OECD Education Working Paper No. 167) is available here.

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